No great surprise here after the record breaking regular season last time around and I think the disappointment of then missing out in the play-offs will only further fuel their challenge this year. The squad is packed with quality and in MVP Carlos Vela possesses the best player currently operating in MLS. Last years top scorer wasted no time in claiming another couple of goals in their remarkable 3-0 2nd leg win in the Champions League this week (having lost 0-2 at Leon in the first encounter) and will again be ably supported by Diego Rossi who despite plenty of transfer interest from Europe remains at the club. Another Uruguayan Brian Rodriguez offers the potential for plenty more improvement at just 19 and the biggest challenge for Bob Bradley will be fitting all 3 into the same side given none are a natural centre forward. Eduard Atuesta and Mark-Anthony Kaye offer a bit of everything in the midfield so it’s at the back where they may have at least the odd issue. Walker Zimmerman’s departure was surprising, although a reinforcement is apparently imminent and Kenneth Vermeer, as experienced a goalkeeper as he is, is not a like for like replacement for Tyler Miller in terms of style. But over the course of the campaign they look the strongest and I’m not exactly sticking my neck out by tipping them to win MLS Cup this term.
2. Portland Timbers
Despite making the play-offs and the US Open Cup semi-finals last season Portland never seemed to hit the heights they’d previously been capable of, particularly at Providence Park. There’s certainly scope for improvement this time around and the pieces appear to be in place to do so. Yimmi Chara is a very different type of player to his brother Diego but the winger could provide the sort of attacking threat to complement the likes of Blanco, Ebobisse and Diego Valeri whose decision to stay and sign a TAM contract is equally notable. Speculation over his future towards the end of last season potentially affected both player and team so his return to the fold is a big plus. The other Chara will remain as important as ever with Diego’s defensive midfield role pivotal in this side and I could see the Timbers proving the best of the rest in the west.
3. LA Galaxy
Replacing Zlatan is an impossible task so the Galaxy will have to solve that conundrum collectively and there’s every chance it could make them a more effective unit. Ibrahimovic was a matchwinner, capable of moments of brilliance, of inspiring through sheer force of personality but he wasn’t able or willing to offer much in terms of movement up front or defensive contributions. Javier Hernandez looks an inspired signing to fill the void in terms of goals – he’ll need the service but the squad is well stocked with potential providers. Cristian Pavon is surely the pick of the bunch in terms of pedigree and after half a season to settle in there’s every chance the Argentine could be an MVP contender he’s that good. Kljestan and Katai are new arrivals who add to the offensive threat and even without Zlatan this side should be fun to watch this season. Again, as it was last year, keeping them out at the other end is likely to prove more of a problem but one of the biggest threats to LAFC in the West should again come from the same city, further whetting the appetite for the latest instalments of El Traffico which may prove pivotal to how the season shapes up.
4. Sporting KC
It was a big surprise to see SKC struggle as they did last season, missing the play-offs for the first time since 2010. If the pre-season is anything to go by it seems to have served as a resounding wake-up call and there’s a real determination to avoid a repeat. The club record signing of Alan Pulido from Chivas, last season’s top scorer in Liga MX, is a huge statement of intent and should finally provide Sporting with the 20 goal a season striker they’ve been lacking for many a year. With the quality of service provided by the likes of Johnny Russell and Felipe Gutierrez Pulido should thrive in MLS and his side surge back up the standings as a result. I’d also doubt a Peter Vermes team would concede as many again as in 2019 with steps also taken to shore up that defence with the arrivals of Roberto Puncec and the wild card loan signing of Winston Reid from West Ham. If they can keep the Kiwi fit and get him back to somewhere near his best that could prove to be a very astute bit of business. I’d be shocked if Sporting weren’t back in the play-off shake-up this season.
5. FC Dallas
Luchi Gonzalez did a very creditable job in his first season with the first team last year, helping the development of a number of the young talents he'd nurtured in the Academy. The likes of Paxton Pomykal, Jesus Ferreira and Brandon Servania should all be even better for that experience and will also benefit from some smart signings. Fafa Picault, arriving from Philadelphia, looks a good fit for this side and when Franco Jara joins on a DP contract in the summer to spearhead the strike forcethey should be even stronger in the second half of the season. Dallas snuck into the play-offs last year and pushed eventual champions Seattle all the way in round 1 – I wouldn’t expect them to go backwards this time around.
6. Seattle Sounders
The Sounders did superbly in the play-offs last season to lift their 2nd MLS Cup and the squad looks well equipped for their title defence, a notoriously tough task in this league. Their surprise early elimination from the Champions League could go either way – the early season fixture list suddenly got a lot less daunting but the disappointment of that penalty shoot out exit to Olimpia could cast a shadow over the side at the start of their domestic season. Add in the fact they’ll be one of the biggest scalps out there this year and that Roman Torres, Kim Kee-hee and Brad Smith have all departed in defence and there could be teething troubles again this term. Traditionally strong finishers though, Seattle should still have enough to put themselves in position for another genuine post season push.
7. Minnesota United
Last season was one of significant progress for the Loons as they made the play-offs for the first time and reached the US Open Cup final. The next challenge is to maintain those sort of levels. Attacking firepower has been lost, particularly with the departure of Darwin Quintero although by late last season he wasn’t being picked to start the big games by Adrian Heath so it doesn’t come as too much of a surprise and they’ll have high hopes for loan signing Luis Amarilla. MLS Goalkeeper of the Year Vito Mannone will surely be missed but he wasn’t the only reason for a major improvement in the sides defensive fortunes and in Tyler Miller from LAFC they’ve brought in a handy replacement. Making the post season again would be no mean feat for Adrian Heath’s side and I certainly think they’re capable despite some tough competition.
8. Colorado Rapids
It wouldn’t surprise me should Colorado continue their progress since the appointment of Robin Fraser last season and they too have a real shot at the play-offs in his first full year in charge. After recent disappointments the Rapids do have reason for optimism again – Younes Namli and Nicolas Benezet will add to their attacking options and I’ve always rated Auston Trusty since his rapid rise at Philadelphia, the centre back’s signing could be prove to be very good business for Colorado. The presence of the retired Tim Howard will be missed but if this side settle they’ve got a real shot at a first play-off appearance since 2016 – nearly but not quite for me though.
9. San Jose Earthquakes
The Quakes are another side clearly capable of the post season but who I’m ranking just outside. They started and finished last season poorly but in between found some of their best form for years and justified the reputation of coach Matias Almeyda who made an undeniable impact on this squad. They’re almost all back for this year, making Cristian Espinoza’s loan move permanent should be a big help, and now well drilled in Almeyda’s demands. The rest of the league though now know a bit more too about his man marking system and will perhaps be better prepared to combat it. And then there’s the narrative of Chris Wondolowski’s final season – the all-time record MLS scorer will be desperate to bow out on a high, it’s certainly possible but they may just fall short again.
10. Real Salt Lake
RSL ended up 3rd in the West last season despite the fallout from Mike Petke’s departure as coach and lacking the star names of many of their rivals. That was quite some effort and fully justified the decision to give Freddy Juarez the job on a permanent basis but I think they might find it tougher this time around. Any club would miss the presence of someone like Nick Rimando after the incredible career the goalkeeper had so there’s bound to be something of a void around the place at the start of this season. Jefferson Savarino’s departure will be felt as well and although they look to have made some astute pick-ups in the market, including Justin Meram from Atlanta, they don’t seem quite as strong as some of their rivals.
11. Houston Dynamo
Another tricky club to predict after the arrival as coach of Tab Ramosfollowing years of sterling service with the US Under 20’s. The Dynamo present an interesting challenge for the MLS original having failed to make the play-offs in 5 of the last 6 years - it's one he definitely merits. They certainly have the firepower to cause real problems. Neither Alberth Elis nor Mauro Manotas are short of suitors and have been supplemented by the arrival of Darwin Quintero. But getting the balance right is the real challenge for Ramos with this side and it may make take much more than one pre-season to get there.
The other expansion side maybe haven’t made as many headlines as in Miami but there’s still a quiet optimism over their arrival in MLS. They do have a little more consistency, coming up from the USL, under head coach Gary Smith – who of course lead Colorado to MLS Cup back in 2010. He certainly knows his way around this league and has added some proven performers with the signing of Walker Zimmerman from LAFC particularly standing out. Dax McCarty provides invaluable experience and I can see this side being solid and tough to break down. Goalscoring might be much more of an issue though which is why I suspect they’ll spend their debut season towards the lower reaches of the Western Conference.
13. Vancouver Whitecaps
The Whitecaps propped up the West last season and although the squad does look stronger this time around, particularly the eye catching addition of Lucas Cavallini up front, I’m still not convinced they’ll be able to make up that sort of margin. Cristian Dajome and Leonard Owusu are other notable additions and if they can have the desired impact there’s definitely the possibility to progress and push for the play-offs. But I still feel Vancouver are vulnerable and others appeal more.